by Norm Miller
The twin spires of Grossmünster (great church) soar as sentinels over Zurich, Switzerland, and stand as the city’s most notable landmark. The building’s craftsmanship inspires awe, and the soaring ceilings naturally draw one’s attention heavenward.
Completed ca. 1230, Grossmünster and its steeples have seen significant historical events. Among them was the Zwingli-led transition from Catholicism to Protestantism. And another was the murder of Felix Manz, who parted with Zwingli regarding infant baptism.
The consequential progeny of a Catholic priest and a common prostitute, Manz — a founder and progenitor of the Swiss Brethren/Anabaptist Church – became the Anabaptists’ first martyr at the hands of Protestant Reformers.
Like certain such historical movements and their leaders, persecution for Anabaptism was the pebble in the pond that pushed concentric waves outward, forcing the currents of change to wash over a parched land, flooding it with the Water of Life.
While the earliest Reformers retained some vestiges of Roman Catholicism, like paedobaptism, the Radical Reformers – the Anabaptists – rejected man-conjured traditions and embraced the biblical truth regarding baptism of believers only.
The power of the gospel fueled Anabaptism, and the Holy Spirit of God enabled Manz, et al, in preaching repentance, forgiveness and salvation, and in baptizing, ultimately, thousands of new believers, and in planting countless churches.
While achieving success in God’s eyes, others saw the Anabaptists as blight upon their already established religious fiefdoms.
While the earliest Reformers stood well dressed in pulpits of prominence, Anabaptists, commonly garbed, often were itinerant street preachers, who trekked miles into the forest to worship God in the safety of caves he created.
While the earliest Reformers enjoyed political safe-haven and sanction from civil authorities, the Anabaptists endured harassment, arrest, imprisonment, hunger, beatings and death at the hands and behest of their detractors.
The contrasts in faith and practice are stark and startling.
Though several of the formative Anabaptists in Zurich initially followed Zwingli and his reforms, their continual Bible study led them to certain convictions about the gospel, the Christian life, and particularly, the meaning of baptism and its candidates. Thus, parting company with Zwingli ultimately meant sealing one’s fate as an outcast, a criminal, a martyr. The Anabaptists paid for their biblical convictions by suffering judicial convictions of death through martyrdom by drowning or burning.
What does it all mean?
From June 11-24, Truett-McConnell College’s Anabaptist Tour 2014 led 14 people connected with the college on a journey across four countries that covered well more than 2,000 miles and backtracked into history some 500 years.
Students, staff, faculty and friends of TMC visited significant sites of the Anabaptists, standing where they preached and ministered, and sometimes weeping where the Anabaptists were imprisoned, drowned, and burned at the stake.
On the eve of the group’s return to the States, June 23, President Caner assembled the tour group and invited reflective comments regarding what had impacted each person the most.
Dr. Jason Graffagnino — Chair, World Missions and Christian Studies Division, and assistant professor of history and Christian studies — reflected on a visit to Germany 10 years ago, saying the mood was “very dark, spiritually, very cold.” But he observed a different spiritual climate from one day previous as he preached the June 22 Sunday sermon at Freie Evangelische Bibelgemeinde Espelkamp in Espelkamp, Germany.
The people sang with “passion,” he said, and some others approached Graffagnino afterward to discuss his sermon.
“It was encouraging to me. It showed me God is moving,” he said. “ I saw a complete difference, yesterday, in watching these descendants of Anabaptists worshiping. They had a baby dedication with about 30 parents and their little ones.”
“This is still real,” Graffagnino said. “It’s not history. It’s still happening, and it struck me more than I thought it would.”
Upon seeing the Roman Catholic cathedrals, and realizing that many Catholics trust in the church’s sacraments, student Kristie Harrell said “it really has just broken my heart that Catholics aren’t saved. It just hurts.”
Sympathetically citing the WWII horrors of Jewish history, student Zach Smith noted the scant history of the Anabaptists, saying, “They have their place in history, too.”
First Lady Hana Caner recalled the murder of Felix Manz, and in particular, the notation of history that Manz’s mother called to him as he was led to his death; she encouraged him to be strong in his faith.
“The tour has brought history to life in hearing about the people my husband looks up to,” she said. “To walk in their footsteps and to actually see these places, that make it all the more real.”
“I have to ask myself, do we really understand the price of freedom?” Mrs. Caner said. “Do we see the sacrifices that people have made – these martyrs – so we can worship freely?”
She wondered aloud what would have happened without the Anabaptists’ ministry and sacrifice. “I think that, sometimes, we don’t appreciate our heritage. It is as if we are diminishing and devaluing their sacrifice when we take it for granted. I think it is so important for us to understand the price of freedom.”
The daughter of a Czech pastor, who ministered and suffered under communism, Mrs. Caner recalled a museum sculpture of police interrogating an Anabaptist, saying, “That really hits home.” Stifling tears and a quivering voice, she said, “My dad still doesn’t want to talk about it.”
“We have no clue as to what other people have gone through in their lives,” said Dr. Michael Whitlock, assistant professor of Christian studies. “And we have failed to really invest the faith in our next generation in America. Our churches are but a generation away from losing the commitment that there is something worth dying for. The tour is going to change the way I think about some things.”
Student Kennedy Rogers recalled the tourists, who seemed to be enjoying the sites, while apparently oblivious to the price that some people paid. “It breaks my heart that they don’t know what others went through.”
A member of Helen First Baptist Church, Helen, Ga., MaryAnna Jenkinson noted the connection she felt to “a long line of people who have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and who have been willing to give their lives for that – and I don’t know if I would be willing to do that. But I still feel that connection. It seated itself in my heart, and I don’t think it’s going away.”
Dr. Tom Hennigan, associate professor of biology noted “how much the State church had changed from the Church in the Book of Acts – completely, 180 degrees.”
Hennigan also noted an oil painting that depicted a dying, homeless man, and he asked, “What am I doing to not only share the gospel, but to share the love of Christ with people like that, just to reach out and love them?”
After listening to Drs. Whitlock and Graffagnino, who lectured at various sites, President Caner said, “The word that popped out repeatedly in their lectures is the word community. One of the Anabaptists’ strengths was that there wasn’t only one guy hovering over the people, but it was the active Body of Christ.”
“Anabaptism is not a ‘Lone Ranger’ theology – never will be,” Dr. Caner added. “It’s a congregational theology; it’s a community theology based on the sufficiency of God’s word. That means the Bible is always powerful, but it takes vocal cords. That’s the point of Romans: ‘How will they hear without a man who preaches?’’’
“Once you come into such an experience like this tour, it rests upon your soul so heavily that I don’t think you can leave it, saying, ‘Yeah, that’s just history,’” said Dr. Caner, adding that the heritage must be taught and appreciated.
Noting that some of the precise locations of Anabaptist history are not known, Dr. Caner said, “That’s the whole point of Anabaptism; it never centers upon self, or opulence, or idols. It centers upon Christ. So, no wonder we can’t find the exact locations of Hubmaier’s execution or Manz’s drowning. They would’ve never wanted that.”
In summary of the tour, Dr. Caner recited one of his mottoes: “If we are going to reach the next generation, we must teach the next generation.” Having taught Baptist History more than 25 times, Dr. Caner lives that motto.
The Anabaptist vision is one Dr. Caner sees clearly, and is one he is committed to preaching and promoting from the classroom lectern and the church pulpit because it is also a biblical heritage.
Reflecting on the tour and the sacrifices of the Anabaptists, Dr. Caner asked the group, rhetorically, “Was it worth it?”
For a related story on the tour, CLICK HERE.